Compromise in offing over non-Orthodox conversions

JERUSALEM — Adversaries in the battle over conversion legislation appeared to be stepping back from the abyss.

Reform and Conservative leaders said Tuesday night they were willing to withdraw petitions to Israel's High Court of Justice to secure recognition for their conversions.

"We've agreed to the compromise," the director general of the Reform movement's World Union of Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, told reporters. "We've agreed to a request to make an effort to delay the court cases."

The coalition leadership announced Monday it was willing to freeze legislative work on the conversion bill if the Reform and Conservative movements suspended their court actions.

The bill, which would cement in law exclusive Orthodox authority over conversions performed in Israel, has threatened to drive a wedge between Israel and U.S. Jewry.

Hirsch made the announcement after a delegation of U.S. and Israeli Reform and Conservative leaders met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the end of a third day of marathon talks with government officials aimed at reaching a compromise.

After making the statement, Hirsch returned to the premier's office to continue talks that included the American leaders as well as Bobby Brown, the prime minister's adviser on diaspora affairs; Trade Minister Natan Sharansky of the immigrant-rights party Yisrael Ba'Aliyah; and Knesset member Alexander Lubotsky, who has spearheaded compromise efforts on behalf of the government.

This week's meetings came several days after an incident at the Western Wall threw into sharp relief the resentments felt by some ultra-religious Israelis toward the more liberal streams of Judaism.

In that incident, which took place June 11 in the early morning hours of Shavuot, ultra-religious men attacked a mixed group of male and female worshippers at the Western Wall.

The emerging compromise on the conversion bill would call for the Orthodox parties in Israel to freeze any further movement of the legislation, and for the non-Orthodox movements to withdraw their court petitions.

Those two moves would be accompanied by the creation of a committee, comprising representatives from the three main streams of Judaism, that would seek in the coming months to reach a resolution satisfactory to all parties.

While the Conservative and Reform leaders were willing to withdraw their court petitions, the women's organization Na'amat remained unwilling to take that step. Rabbi Einat Ramon, spokeswoman of the Conservative-Masorti movement, criticized the decision by Na'amat.

"I think it is a mistake because we want to give us all a chance to find a solution, particularly when the government shows good will," Ramon told reporters Tuesday night.

During the first round of discussions with Israeli officials Sunday, the delegation of Reform and Conservative leaders referred to that atmosphere of good will, saying the reception they had received from government officials exceeded their expectations.

The leaders were particularly concerned that the task force be committed to real negotiations and not try to bury the issue.

"I was impressed with the prime minister's understanding that a short-term solution isn't what we're looking for," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "The prime minister appears committed to working personally on the problem."

Referring to the incident last week at the Western Wall, Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly of America, said, "We told the prime minister that the American Jewish community is watching what is going on in Israel," especially after the incident at the Kotel.

"This past Shabbat, there was hardly a synagogue in the United States that didn't discuss what happened. The prime minister acknowledged that it was a terrible incident."

Efforts to seek a compromise on the conversion bill began after the Knesset passed the draft measure April 1 in the first of three Knesset votes, known as readings.

The religious parties have been pressing for final Knesset action by the end of the month and have threatened to bring down the Netanyahu government by leaving the coalition if the bill does not become law.

Members of the non-Orthodox streams in Israel and in the diaspora have protested that the legislation would not only delegitimize Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel but would negate their practice of Judaism.

During a Knesset Law Committee session Tuesday, the non-Orthodox rabbis described the plight of secular Israeli parents who have adopted foreign children.

Several of the Reform and Conservative petitions now before the high court deal with the fact that the Interior Ministry refuses to recognize these children as Jews after they undergo a Reform or Conservative conversion.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, expressed the hurt felt by Reform and Conservative Jews.

Orthodox Jews in Israel "say our rabbis aren't rabbis, our synagogues aren't synagogues, our prayers aren't prayers," Hirsch said.

"We are one people and the Jewish state is the center of the Jewish people. The state must not pass a law that delegitimizes a million Jews."

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who emigrated from New York to become the chief rabbi of the West Bank town of Efrat, pleaded with his fellow Orthodox rabbis to consider a compromise conversion procedure that would be acceptable to all streams of Judaism.

"I think there has to be a compromise for the unity of the Jewish people. On the one hand, to bring Reform conversions to Israel would be very problematic. At the same time, we dare not establish a law that will make 85 percent of American Jews feel delegitimized."

American Jews have been cautiously eyeing the progress of the conversion bill, with some saying they would withhold their donations to Israel if the measure passed the Knesset.

In Israel, some Orthodox Jews have vowed to fight the non-Orthodox movements' efforts to seek greater recognition within the Jewish state.

Last week during Shavuot, as the mixed group of Conservative Jews was holding a prayer service at the Western Wall, a female congregant's attempts to read from a Torah scroll prompted angry shouts of "Nazis," "murderers," "reformers" and "whores" from a crowd of ultrareligious Jews pressing in around the worshippers.

When the Conservative Jews were escorted from the Western Wall Plaza by security units, students at a nearby yeshiva pelted them with rocks, trash and excrement.

The deputy mayor of Jerusalem later reserved his criticism for the Conservative congregation.

"The very fact that the Conservative Jews, who symbolize the destruction of the Jewish people, came to the place that is holiest to the Jewish people is a provocation," Haim Miller of the ultra-religious Agudat Yisrael Party told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

"They have no reason to be in this place," he added.

Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Yigal Bibi of the National Religious Party also termed the Conservative congregation's mixed prayer service a "provocation."

But he added, "There's no need to take the law into one's own hands."

Unlike his deputy, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert weighed in solidly against the crowd of haredim.

He expressed "deep frustration" at the "barbaric, brutal attack by a small group of violent hooligans."

"We have legitimate differences which can be discussed, but it is inconceivable to turn these differences into violent acts," Olmert said at the opening session of the Zionist General Council, the governing body of the World Zionist Organization.

The incident was the topic of heated discussion on Jewish Internet sites.

In CompuServe's Israel Forum, one member said that the incident represented a "line in the sand" for non-Orthodox Jews.

Just as some haredim have sought to exclude non-Orthodox converts from their definition of who is a Jew, the member said, non-Orthodox Jews should seek to have the haredim who were involved in last week's incident disassociated from the Jewish people.